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S & H Opera Review

Offenbach, La Vie Parisienne, Opéra-Comique, Paris, February 1, 2002 (FC)

Jérôme Savary, the director of the Opéra-Comique for the last two years, is a man on a mission. He has mounted his charger, taken up his lance and has set out to slay the dark forces that have threatened his vision of Offenbach. Recently there has been a spate of performances by a bunch of upstart know-it-alls who have been presenting Offenbach with care and respect. They have brushed him off, straightened his tie, given him some strong black coffee, and have taken him downtown to the big opera house, where he enjoyed remarkable new successes. If Savary has his way, Offenbach will be returned to his proper place: being played by organ grinders and featured in Pigalle hotspots.

This gang of effete snobs hijacked the besotted composer, took a fresh look at the libretto of Henri Meihac and Ludovic Halévy and has found wit and brilliance in the text and scores. The recent raging success of La Belle Hélène at Théâtre du Châtelet with conductor Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre only underscores the dangerous new direction that this composer is being taken. Conductors like Kent Nagano and even John Elliot Gardiner have given highly praised productions in Lyon and the recordings of these have been well received. The polished performances, world-class singing, and careful theatre very well might endanger the musically careless and burlesque style of presenting Offenbach you usually find in low-budget music halls.

There are obstacles to overcome in defeating this "new Offenbach" but Savary is nothing if not creative. What about the tuneful and sophisticated music which is shown to full effect by these major conductors? He has a simple solution: do away with the conductor entirely. Have one of your old friends from the music halls bang away on the piano while a scrappy band of ill-tuned musicians try to follow along. Major voices need not apply for this run. If you could sing in tune some of the time you're hired. No acting skills were required; the performers waived their arms in huge semaphore motions when trying to convey some meaning or other.

Another obstacle is the witty, suggestive, self-mocking and brilliant libretto by Meihac and Halévy. No problem. Savary simply covered the stage with action, like actors running back and forth, guns going off, and other meaningless movement. And the sex. Savary never missed an opportunity to stick a face in a cleavage, show the audience the underwear or breasts and couples were never onstage together for two minutes before they were humping like cocker spaniels. If nothing else, audience members will come away from this production with a new appreciation of the delicate and sophisticated restraint of Benny Hill.

There is beginning to be a recurring sameness in the productions of Savary of late. I swear the character playing the Brazilian was wearing the same outfit worn by the Elvis impersonator in La Pèrichole last year. The women leads all appear in outrageous getups that remind this writer of an off-the-strip Las Vegas show doing a poor imitation of a Lido production. There is the usual collection of contortionists, acrobats, confetti throwers and high-kickers from his other shows and a retro feel to the scenery. A feature of the stage décor was large draped curtains that were actually painted on a piece of plywood cut to shape. The sets were generally unattractive and the costumes were an uninspired grab-bag of styles.

This production of La vie parisienne, a co-production with the opera of Toulouse and seen there in 1998, continues until April 14. Information on this and future events is at Somewhere, in a dingy, smoke-filled basement room at the Opera-Comique, the ghosts of Offenbach, Meihac and Halévy are sitting around a table, finishing off another bottle of Pastis, and reflecting sadly on their brief flirtation with respectability.

Frank Cadenhead

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